50 Best New U.S. Restaurants
You know the American restaurant paradigm is shifting when communal benches become more desirable than leather banquettes. When humble kimchi is suddenly chic, and the words local and seasonal are recited as routinely as fried or sautéed. At a time of economic difficulty and changing consumer tastes for both food and décor, we crisscrossed the country in search of outstanding new restaurants with a very different mind-set.
We gravitated toward spots that offered us warmth and a sense of human connection, and greeted the opening of a neighborhood noodle parlor or artisanal sandwich shop with an enthusiasm formerly reserved for high-concept eating destinations. In Chicago, a delicious take on Korean street food is dished out at Urbanbelly, an inexpensive joint with four communal tables that is generating enormous enthusiasm among dumpling lovers in the Windy City. At San Francisco’s Sentinel, a tiny downtown sandwich spot, the once-tired standard of a quick lunch is being transformed into an aesthetic masterpiece.
And yet, for all the populist gastropubs and wood-fired-pizza parlors, a world without culinary ambition would be a sad one indeed. That’s why we’re grateful for serious new restaurants like Corton, in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood, where legendary restaurateur Drew Nieporent and buzzed-about British chef Paul Liebrandt are creating special-occasion dinners for a new age. Old-school luxuries like foie gras and oysters are dressed up in fresh and innovative ways that make them seem more relevant than ever. And the room itself—elegantly lit and blessedly quiet—is an inviting retreat where you want to sit for hours (and you probably will).
Or take L20 in Chicago, a striking seafood mecca where chef Laurent Gras is working magic. The service is old-fashioned in its graciousness, but not stuffy; the wine list is smart; and the exquisite tasting menu melds French rigor and opulence with the inimitable raw-fish skills of the Japanese.
Will the current financial crisis turn us into wiser, gentler people? We hope so. Meanwhile, let’s thank America’s chefs for ensuring that in these uncertain times we are being more responsibly, affordably—and, yes, deliciously!—fed.
There’s just no stopping Chicago on its march toward the title of America’s Dining Capital. As restaurants elsewhere flounder, the Windy City hits it out of the park in every category. No other city, for instance, has an opening to match the ambition of L2O, a neo-Modernist seafood temple where Laurent Gras proves that he might be the most commanding chef in the country. Think gracious, unstarchy service, a fine-tuned wine list, and a masterful tasting menu that weds Gallic rigor and opulence to Japanese skill with raw fish. Out come delicate morsels of kinmedai (big-eye snapper), lightly smoked over cherrywood and slicked with apricot oil. Then a voluptuous shrimp tartare under a scattering of pansies and edible gold dust. All this in a suave open space that would impress even Mies van der Rohe with its serene, plush geometries and attention to detail. If you’re going to splurge on one grand meal this year, L2O is your place. Dinner for two $180.
Dirt cheap but equally thrilling, Urbanbelly is already an obsession with local noodle and dumpling hounds. The hipster BYO nook with four communal tables sits in an Avondale strip mall between a laundromat and a dry cleaner owned by relatives of Korean-American chef Bill Kim. Asian street food? Yes, but as interpreted by a chef who spent years working under the likes of Charlie Trotter and David Bouley. Whether ethereal squash pockets laced with Kaffir lime and orange, or roasted duck purses scented with Vietnamese pho spices—Kim’s complex dumplings deliver four-star bang for seven paltry bucks. Lunch for two $42.
Is Kim’s Korean kimchi stew, loaded with pork, hominy, and slippery rice cakes, the world’s coolest comfort food? Or would that title go instead to the pink supple slices of duck breast at Perennial, stacked between fluffy wedges of savory bread pudding? Designed with slim tree trunks and a tented ceiling, this Lincoln Park room radiates breezy glamour, and so does the food. Fresh from stints at some of Spain’s greatest avant-garde kitchens, young local chef Ryan Poli has the intelligence and restraint to distill cutting-edge concepts into relaxed, market-driven American fare. His pumpkin tart highlighted with date purée, his crisp-skinned striped bass in a smoky consommé of caramelized onion, and cheeky inside-out cheesecake are all major triumphs. Dinner for two $85.
Chicago: The Publican
Long before The Publican served the first sweetbread schnitzel and hay-smoked “ham chop” from a menu that reads like a map of boutique American farms, Chicagoans were in a tizzy of anticipation. Why? Because this sly tribute to Teutonic beer halls comes from the team behind the wildly popular Blackbird and Avec. Now hordes of beer geeks, oyster lovers, and pork-rind addicts crowd the wooden tables in the loud, sprawling room. The Publican’s huge list of global microbrews is complimented by such devilishly clever noshes as a pair of boudin sausages accompanied by a cluster of salamander-crisped grapes. When you see this dish copied all over the world, just remember: it came from Chicago. Dinner for two $60.
New York City: Corton
Food-loving New Yorkers aren’t letting Wall Street shocks scare them away from great meals. Even reports of white-tablecloth dining’s demise seem somewhat exaggerated—judging at least from the hum at Corton, where open tables are scarce. All sleek seamless perfection, the creamy space that once housed Montrachet is a new labor of love for canny restaurateur Drew Nieporent and British wunderkind chef Paul Liebrandt. His high-wire cooking somehow convinces one that luxuries like foie gras (glazed with a shocking-pink hibiscus-and-beet gelée), oysters (tricked out with toasted buckwheat and nutmeg oil), and squab (served with a decadent chestnut crème) are as relevant as ever. The banquettes are beautifully curved, the sound level invites conversation, and the lighting flatters even the original TriBeCa denizens. Best of all, Corton delivers that magical sense of occasion we’re starting to miss in this age of the gastropub. Dinner for two $150.
New York City: Soto
Finding it impossible to score that online reservation at David Chang’s 12-seat Momofuku Ko? Despair not: Seek nirvana behind the maplewood counter at Soto (where reservations are, blissfully, available). Why this blond, serene spot run by a bona fide Japanese genius isn’t an impossible booking is one of New York’s great mysteries: maybe people simply aren’t ordering right. An ace with sashimi and sushi, Sotohiro Kosugi deserves his place in the world’s gastro-god pantheon for his jewel-like variations on sea urchin. He fries nutty sea-fresh uni blobs into a lacy tempura; dehydrates uni into a mysterious orange dust that highlights butter-smooth slabs of monkfish-liver mousse; and dollops uni into a trompe-l’oeil urchin shell made of squid filaments and shredded seaweed. Each exquisite morsel is a treat of a lifetime. Dinner for two $130.
New York City: Convivio
In the pleasingly sedate, far-east-midtown Italian canteen Convivio, UN peacemakers lunch on irresistible anchovy-filled pepperoncini and pillowy salted-cod ravioli. The chef, Michael White, delivers the kind of mellow refinement you don't usually find beyond the Boot. Lunch for two $86.
New York City: Scarpetta
Sea urchin aside, New York’s flavor di giorno is southern Italian. Pasta fans are gaga for the jazzy Meatpacking District hotspot Scarpetta, which serves a shockingly good fritto misto and gorgeous polenta with a woodsy wild-mushroom fricassee. Dinner for two $120.
New York City: Co.
Who needs Naples when the world’s greatest pizza is currently baked at Co., on a windswept corner in Chelsea? Here, Jim Lahey, the fanatic behind Sullivan St Bakery, turns out jagged, faintly tangy, artfully blistered pies perfectly engineered to support their toppings without being soggy or bready or overly chewy—a feat that usually eludes even Italy’s best pizzaioli. The eternal wait at his high-design pizzeria (come early or late) pays off with artisanal salumi and pies like the Amalfi, pungent with green olives and anchovies; or the Santo, its charred radicchio cap cutting through the decadence of three cheeses. Dinner for two $55.
New York City: Txikito
Is this formerly barren Ninth Avenue block the city’s newest gourmet corridor? A few doors down, one discovers something equally special and singular at the cozy barn wood–clad cubbyhole called Txikito. Here, Alex Raij and Bilbao-born Eder Montero (former chefs at the beloved tapas haunt Tía Pol) preach authentic Basque—not Spanish—cooking. New customers stop by for chorizo-and–quail egg canapés, and sweet ribbons of squid mingled with pine nuts—and keep coming back for the blackboard specials: a whole grilled turbot with a sizzling garlic vinaigrette, or a meltingly tender rolled lamb breast a la plancha. Dinner for two $80.
New York City: Gottino
Don’t go home just yet—you’ll miss out on the Big Apple’s ever-flourishing late-night counter culture. After 10 p.m. is a perfect time to visit the otherwise impossibly crowded Gottino, an Italian gastroteca famous among food cognoscenti for such simpatico nibbles as cotechino sausage–stuffed apples and rabbit pot pie served behind its handsome long marble bar. Snacks for two $40.
New York City: Terroir
Across town, in the East Village, the city’s top sommeliers (and those who drink with them) swirl and sniff after-hours at the pocket-size Terroir, drawn by wine director Paul Grieco’s grape savvy and chef Marco Canora’s crispy fried lamb sausage in sage leaves and veal-and-ricotta meatballs. Snacks for two $40.
New York City: Dovetail
The Upper West Side is rocking too, thanks in large part to Dovetail, which has the city’s most welcoming service, an organic earth-toned design, and a treasure in its creative, French Laundry–trained chef-owner John Fraser, whose haute-humble menu dazzles even with lamb’s tongue and brussels sprouts. Book ahead for Fraser’s $38 Sunday Suppa, for gnocchi under an inspired short rib–and–foie gras ragù or a winning rendition of meatloaf. The mini red-velvet cupcakes dressed with a loose cream cheese frosting (served pre-dessert) are reason enough to venture uptown. Dinner for two $110.
50 Best New U.S. Restaurants
San Francisco: Moss Room
This wildly popular dining venue at the new California Academy of Sciences, in Golden Gate Park (sister restaurant to the neighboring Academy Café), is a shrine to sustainable agriculture, courtesy of local food heroes and good-pal chefs Charles Phan (Slanted Door) and Loretta Keller (Coco500). The handsome subterranean space—yes, that’s live moss on the wall—has delicious ricotta cavatelli and succulent lamb kefta on its crowd-pleasing Cal-Med menu. Try not to fret the $25 museum admission to lunch here: surely you want to see the eco-sleek sci-fi setting that starchitect Renzo Piano has created for the designer butterflies and lizards. Lunch for two $65.
San Francisco: Academy Café
Upstairs from Moss Room is an opportunity for sheer fun: prowling from station to station at the self-service café. Where else can you load up your tray with juicy Niman Ranch pork carnitas tacos, Phan’s famously feathery Vietnamese steamed chicken buns, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches updated with organic almond butter and house-made jam? Lunch for two $32.
San Francisco: La Mar
Talking of settings, they don’t come any prettier than the outdoor seats at La Mar, right on the water’s edge on the Embarcadero, with a view of the boats and the bay. This big, bold cebichería is the first American outpost by Gaston Acurio, the dynamic Peruvian über-chef determined to hook the planet on Andean chilies, tubers, and jazzy lime-soaked raw-fish concoctions. Who needs main courses when you can follow a cebiche sampler with fluffy cilantro-laced cheese tamales and attractively charred octopus skewers, all starters hearty enough for a meal? Lunch for two $70.
San Francisco: Spruce
Plundering the appetizer menu is also a smart move at Spruce, a masculine chocolate-colored boîte in Presidio Heights where neighborhood swells wash down grilled bavette steak and sinful duck fat–fried potatoes with big-ticket Cabs with prerecession abandon. Among the many reasons to love Spruce are a deep, serious Riesling list; chef Mark Sullivan’s awesome house-made charcuterie; and his knack for sneaking hyper-boutique bitterish greens even into meatier dishes like bacon-bolstered sweetbreads lyonnaise. Allowing guests to order the full affordable bar menu—great burgers and boudin blanc—in the fancy main room is a welcome populist gesture. Dinner for two $110.
50 Best New U.S. Restaurants
San Francisco: Brenda’s French Soul Food
In San Francisco, it’s often the smallest concepts that make the biggest impression. Brenda’s French Soul Food, a tiny Louisiana-inspired breakfast-and-lunch joint, is perpetually crowded with fans of its terrific crawfish beignets and genius shrimp and grits with a winey tomato sauce, from a menu where most items cost less than 10 bucks. Brunch for two $25.
San Francisco: Sentinel
At the Sentinel, a pocket-size downtown sandwich shop, chef Dennis Leary’s creations—perhaps a cornmeal-dusted bun with slow-roasted pork accented with fig and balsamic paste—are an aesthete’s version of lunch on the run. Lunch for two $16.
San Francisco: Blue Bottle Café
What could be better than waking up to the startlingly fragrant coffee made from freshly roasted single-origin beans at Blue Bottle Café? This airy, industrial-chic place is home to the famous halogen-powered $20,000 Japanese coffee siphon; the brewing process has all the ritualistic reverence of a Kyoto tea ceremony. Choose one of the three daily roasts with your farm-fresh poached eggs on Acme Bread Company toast. Breakfast for two $20.
San Francisco: Dynamo Donuts and Coffee
The Blue Bottle didn’t quite fill you up? Or maybe you’re just an unbridled hedonist. At any rate, scurry over to the Mission District before Dynamo Donuts and Coffee runs out of its wickedly good bacon-apple-maple doughnuts. Alas, you’ll probably be too late. Doughnuts for two $5.
Last year was rough for Houstonians, but having recovered from Hurricane Ike, they’re back to the business of eating well—and local chefs are indulging them with new zeal. One of the most nourishing and idiosyncratic spots to open in town since, well, ever, is Feast, set in a rambling Arts and Crafts house in Montrose. The charmingly bare-bones place belongs to a pair of Brits who channel the gutsy embrace of nose-to-tail eating of Fergus Henderson, from London’s St. John. Now Houstonians can’t imagine how they ever lived without the brawny joys of black pudding (served up with a green shock of minted peas and a sunny fried egg), the earthy rewards of rutabaga and cabbage, and the unctuous soulfulness of long-simmered pork cheeks offset with dandelion leaves. Why, the lads even do a properly British Sunday roast! Dinner for two $75.
In contrast to the sturdy pleasures of Feast stands the rather more ethereal Textile, folded into a former 1892 mill in the happening Heights District. A new and ambitious venture of perfection-driven Scott Tycer, a former Food & Wine magazine “Best New Chef,” the 10-table spot is diaphanous and fabric-draped. Flexing his culinary imagination on the ever-changing prix fixe menus, Tycer might sneak the tart notes of apple juice into the crème fraîche velouté for the scallops; or embellish a mini bacon-and-onion tart with glistening greens and two tiny quail eggs. Sweet provocations—smoked brownies, liquefied pumpkin pie—from dessert whiz Plinio Sandalio send guests home all smiles. Dinner for two $170.
About two years ago, when Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant Bank, at the Icon Hotel, closed, its chef de cuisine Bryan Caswell turned his attention to a former Pontiac showroom in Midtown. He recast the glassy industrial space in aquatic hues, called it Reef, and ended up with a hit. Caswell is a Texas-Louisiana boy who once really liked fishing, and his passion for the Gulf of Mexico catch—ever tried wahoo, sheepshead, or tripletail?—powers Reef’s distinct piscine personality. Though the menu’s globalism can feel a little promiscuous, the dishes anchored closer to home really rock the boat. Sweet braised collards and pecan-shallot cracklings add Southern sass to the succulent roasted grouper. Toasted ancho chilies give a spicy-dusky Mexican kick to fat mussels steamed in Shiner Bock beer. And did we mention the absurdly low markups on the well-edited wine list? Dinner for two $85.
It was a happy transformation too for the soaring space that used to house Bank. Following a $4 million makeover, it recently reopened as Voice, and Houstonians are vocal in their approval. Updated with black-and-white textiles and whimsically outsize pendulum lights, the former bank lobby sets a dramatic stage for chef Michael Kramer’s clean and focused New American flavors. Even if you think your taste buds are anesthetized to standards like multicolored heirloom-beet salad with goat cheese, mushroom “cappuccino” soup, or honey-lacquered duck breast—Kramer’s fresh, picture-pretty renditions will jolt them right out of complacency. And isn’t it nice to have those sky-high Doric columns looming above your plump, pearly crab cakes? Dinner for two $75.
You don’t need a crystal ball to divine that American restaurants of the future will probably resemble Seattle’s new crop: quirky spots defined by chefs’ personalities and the region’s agricultural bounty. At the groovy Quinn’s, native wood is the main design element, and the beer list reads like a novel. Lunch for two $30.
Seattle: Pike Street Fish Fry
Any visitor knows that Seattle takes advantage of its proximity to the Pacific. At the fish–and–chips shack Pike Street Fish Fry, right near Quinn’s, sustainable seasonal catches are the order of the day. Lunch for two $20.
Seattle: Spring Hill
In some parts of Seattle, free-range duck eggs are more common than breakfast cereal; the floppy duck-egg raviolo is outstanding (as is the cheeseburger, pictured) at the delicious, design-y Spring Hill. Dinner for two $90.
One of the city’s most disarmingly personal spots is Joule, which resembles a petite Continental café that just happens to serve both esoteric sparkling sakes and Korean kimchi. After bonding in the kitchen of Alain Ducasse in New York, Seoul-born Rachel Yang and her half-Tunisian husband Seif Chirchi moved west and opened a place of their dreams in the eclectic family-friendly Wallingford neighborhood. That’s them in the open kitchen—she adding a dollop of crème fraîche and French refinement into a hearty Korean beef soup; he garnishing an impeccably grilled dorado with a gingery sweet-sour eggplant and a pungent burst of roasted lemon and almond piccata. Dinner for two $60.
Seattle: How to Cook a Wolf
How to Cook a Wolf, brought to you by another lovable young couple act, is a hyper-curated Italian wine bar that’s part of the mini restaurant empire of gifted chef Ethan Stowell. In a handsome wood-slatted den that evokes a Le Corbusier–designed wine barrel, Stowell composes understated antipasti, sauces fluffy gnochetti with local wild mushrooms, and sets a few pink slices of venison on a silken smear of sunchoke purée. The compelling Italian wine list by his wife, Angela, runs to such gems as a Sicilian red called COS Pithos—unoaked, unsulfured, and fermented in terra-cotta amphorae. Dinner for two $65.
Are you more in the mood for a hibiscus-flower–and-Prosecco cocktail? They mix a mean one at Poppy, in the up-and-coming north side of Capitol Hill. The big color-splashed space—imagine a cross between a wood-paneled Danish furniture showroom and a progressive kindergarten—buzzes with fans of chef Jerry Traunfeld, who won local hearts and national laurels with his garden-to-table cooking at Herbfarm. For Poppy, Traunfeld does something different—very different!—channeling his double obsession with exotic spices and greenmarket produce into small tastes presented all at once on a thali tray. Think South India–meets–Pacific Northwest. Michael Pollan would applaud Traunfeld’s tasting platter: mostly vegetables—five-spice chard; an intriguing satsuma-mustard pickle—with a morsel or two of animal protein thrown in for good measure (juicy quail, say, in a rich Persian pomegranate–and-walnut sauce). Dinner for two $90.
Seattle: Corson Building
You could depart Seattle with a virtuous glow, even if slightly annoyed at not having scored a coveted seat at the communal table at Corson Building. That’s where rising-star chef Matt Dillon devises one prix fixe menu served family-style, only on certain nights of the month. The cooking? Simple, local, and seasonal—but of course, you guessed that already. Dinner for two $180.
Atlanta: Holeman and Finch Public House
Somewhat British, a little Mediterranean, soulfully Southern, and wholly awesome, this offal-centric, cocktail-fueled gastropub gets you hooked on the pleasures of headcheese, crunchy fried pigs’ ears, and bone-marrow gratin. Dinner for two $65.
Atlantic City, New Jersey: Izakaya at the Borgata
Having dazzled New Yorkers with his unexpectedly refined cooking at Buddakan, chef Michael Schulson now masterminds the Pan-Asian small-plates menu at this loungy casino restaurant. Follow shrimp dumplings in white-miso lobster broth with the addictive “kinki” chicken wings: braised in duck fat, crisp-fried, then slicked with spicy-sweet glaze. Dinner for two $105.
This Fort Point dining counter from Barbara Lynch serves streamlined versions of the opulent Italian dishes that made her famous at No. 9 Park. Make sure to stop at her downstairs Drink, which reinvents the art of mixology with scholarly cocktails custom-designed for every reveler. Dinner for two $90.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Hungry Mother
Even Boston’s Brahmins go bonkers for this homey neighborhood joint where chef Barry Maiden marries greenmarket sensibility to down-home Appalachian flavors. Haute-cuisine–trained Maiden is an ace with cornmeal-battered oysters and Bourbon-braised pork shoulder. Dinner for two $70.
Master chef Teiichi Sakurai spent time in Tokyo honing the art of the buckwheat noodle for his tranquil soba restaurant. His exemplary zaru (cold) soba would please even die-hard purists, but the warm, brothy versions—grab the one with grilled scallions and duck—are also sublime. Lunch for two $30.
Glendale, California: Palate Food + Wine
A “porkfolio” of house-cured meats, jars of potted-salmon rillettes, and scrumptious farm-to-table daily specials (for under $20) have won Octavio Becerra’s loud, buzzy place plunked in the middle of